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Dame in the Game: Hedy Lamarr and Her “Unfeminine Occupation”

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Hedy LamarrThis month in “Dame in the Game,” we take a step back from Hollywood to take a look at a star who made her most important contributions outside the entertainment industry.

Hedy Lamarr, born Hedwig Keisler in Vienna in 1914, was known as “The Most Beautiful Woman in Films.” Throughout her life, she had a curious mind and, as her colleague George Antheil stated, “a natural aptitude for the rather unfeminine occupation of inventor.” At a time when women were praised far more for their physical attributes than their intellectual ones, Lamarr helped to invent a foundational piece of equipment that still drives many technological advances today.

Her partner in invention George Antheil would describe in his memoir how Hedy’s capacity for invention defied all stereotypes of the Hollywood starlet:

The Hedy whom we know is not the Hedy you know. You know something which the MGM publicity department has, in all its cunning, dreamed up. There is no such Hedy. They have long ado decided that, in order to give her sufficient sex appeal, they will make her just faintly stupid. But Hedy is very, very bright. Compared with most Hollywood actresses we know, Hedy is an intellectual giant.

She was disdainful of the idolization of screen sirens like herself, remarking, “Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” The heaps of praise and success Lamarr achieved in Hollywood bored her, and she turned to inventing in her downtime between pictures to feed her hunger for creative, intellectual output.

Hollywood mogul and fellow inventor Howard Hughes once lent Lamarr two chemists under his employ to help her with the development of a boullion-esque cube that would produce soda similar to Coca-Cola when dissolved in water. This particular invention would never successfully come to fruition, but Lamarr had far greater inventions in mind.

Lamarr_Photo2While still living in Austria, Lamarr had been married to Freidrich Mandl, one of the largest munitions manufacturers in the country. As his wife, she had been present at many dinners and business meetings with Austrian and German statesmen, military leaders, and arms developers. Lamarr overheard their discussions about technological issues and possible solutions, retaining the information and building her own ideas off what she had learned playing hostess for her unsuspecting husband. In 1937, Lamarr ran away from Mandl, taking what she’d learned at these dinner parties with her. Escaping to Paris, she hoped to get to America where she might divorce herself from both her husband and the rising political terror in Germany and Austria.

Flash forward to 1940 when she’d already made a name herself in Hollywood. American entry into World War II was beginning to look inevitable, and Lamarr was stricken by the deaths of children at the hands of her countrymen when a German submarine sunk the passenger liner City of Benares carrying young evacuees to safety in Canada. She felt determined to put her inadvertent espionage and inventing skills to good use, even seriously considering quitting MGM to go to Washington, D.C. to volunteer her services at the newly established Inventors Council. She told George Antheil, “They could just have me around and ask me questions.”

Instead, Antheil, an avant-garde composer and pianist by trade, convinced her to stay in Hollywood and collaborate with him on inventions. Using her ideas and insider information, they set about developing a radio-directed torpedo. They aimed to create technology that would allow an underwater missile to be guided wirelessly and via a shifting frequency that would prevent the transmitted instructions from being jammed by enemy forces. Lamarr called the technique, “frequency hopping,” because both the transmitter and receiver would continuously and randomly shift frequencies together to prevent eavesdropping. Antheil contributed to the device, by using his knowledge of player-piano systems to create a means of simultaneously controlling the transmitter and receiver with eighty-eight (the number of keys on a piano) shifting frequencies.

By September 1940, Lamarr and Antheil were ready to submit their device to the government for a U.S. patent. Lamarr submitted under her birth name, Hedy Keisler, and they called their device the Secret Communication System. They were granted a patent, but ultimately, the navy rejected the proposal as too bulky for their needs. That didn’t stop newspapers from jumping on this unconventional news of a starlet inventor. On October 1, 1941, the New York Times ran a story with the headline “HEDY LAMARR INVENTOR—Actress Devises ‘Red-Hot’ Apparatus for Use in Defense.” The article went on to note, “So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details.”

During the 1940s, Lamarr and Antheil also developed an antiaircraft shell that through the use of a magnetic device would explode not just when it hit a plane, but when it came near it. Lamarr’s love of inventing would continue throughout her life; she developed a proposal for an improved traffic light, suggestions for modifications to the design of the Concorde jet, and an attachment for Kleenex boxes to serve as a solution for used tissues. But in 1959, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent rights expired, and her achievements as an inventor passed unrecognized for most of her life.

Lamarr_Photo3Yet, Lamarr and Antheil’s patent, now referred to as the Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum proved to be the foundation for modern essential technology. Three years after the patent expired, the navy developed Lamarr’s frequency-hopping ideas into a secure communications method, officially known as the CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which helped avert the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the 1980s, the technology was declassified and spread-spectrum technology became the basis for cellular telephone technology. The fundamental concept of the Lamarr-Antheil invention is now used in mobile phones, alarm systems, global positioning satellites, and other forms of wireless technology. Without Hedy and her groundbreaking ideas, we would not have the wireless and cellular telephone capabilities that we do today.

Yet, through the development of this technology, Lamarr’s contributions were rarely cited. In 1990, Forbes interviewed Lamarr, and she remarked, “I can’t understand why there’s no acknowledgement when it’s used all over the world…Never a letter, never a thank you, never money.” Lamarr, perpetually in litigation over unlicensed use of her image, was probably most concerned about the lack of royalties coming her way for the technology she’d been the first to conceive.

By the late 1990s, programmers and scientists began to acknowledge Lamarr and Antheil’s contributions to the field. They were awarded the sixth annual Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, and from there, a flurry of awards followed, including the Chariot Award of the Inventors Club of America, and the Viktor Kaplan Medal from Austria. The Wi-LAN company, creators of high-speed Wi-Fi communications, even began to provide Lamarr with a small residual for her role in the development of their technology.

Today, Lamarr’s birthday, November 9th, is celebrated as Inventor’s Day in Europe, and since 2006, Austria has awarded an annual Hedy Lamarr Prize for special achievement by women in Communication Technology. Still, all this can only begin to account for Lamarr’s contributions to science and technology that went unrecognized for decades. She ended her last years in relative seclusion in Florida, only just beginning to be acknowledged as a groundbreaking pioneer in science at the time of her death.

Lamarr first rose to fame with a role showcasing her beauty as the exotic Gaby in Algiers (1938). She cemented her reputation as the “most beautiful woman in films” by playing the Bible’s “most beautiful woman in the world” Delilah in Samson and Delilah (1949). For years, this was her legacy. Still today, mention her name and most will conjure up a black-and-white image of an impossibly glamorous woman. So, here’s to Hedy—a scientist and woman ahead of her time, whose off-screen contributions are, ironically, often passed over in favor of the iconic nature of her beauty.

If you want more on Hedy Lamarr, three books were invaluable in my research for this piece: “Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World” by Richard Rhodes; “Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” by Ruth Barton; and “Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr” by Stephen Michael Shearer.

Maureen Lenker

About Maureen Lenker

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, director, and producer. She has written for Turner Classic Movies, Stage Raw, @ This Stage, LA Weekly, and more. She is also working towards an MA in Arts Journalism at USC, reporting on arts, theatre, and entertainment. When not at USC, she works on theatre productions throughout Los Angeles (primarily as an assistant director). She is a native Angelino who hates driving and cites peacoats and scarves as her favorite clothing items. An Anglophile, she attempted to fulfill her dream of attending Hogwarts by completing her master’s in British History at the University of Oxford. She is a cock-eyed optimist, rom-com aficionado, classic movie buff, musical theatre geek, and general pop culture enthusiast.